Lessons learned as an altar boy served me well throughout life

By: By Chuck Hippler

Editor’s note: Chuck Hippler is a native of St. Malachy Parish in Geneseo. He is the former news director of radio station WSOY in Decatur, and retired from Caterpillar as public affairs manager of the mining and construction equipment division in Decatur. He resides in Monticello and is a member of St. Philomena Parish.
Mr. Hippler is shown above at right, but is not a member of the trio illustrating altar boys at left.


As the years of my life have gone by I have slowly come to realize that the things I learned and observed as an altar boy had more of an influence on me in my later life than I could have ever understood at that young age.

For starters, there was the training involved. Outside of the grade school classroom at St. Malachy’s, this was the first kind of formal instruction or training I had received in my life. For Catholic boys in Catholic grade schools it was just assumed at that time in the mid-1940s that one would become an altar boy. The only excuse for not serving was usually that one lived too far from the church to walk to weekday Mass.

I never ever saw a fellow altar boy brought to church in a car by his parents on a weekday. We all walked, and often in the dark of winter. And in the cold, I might add. We’re talking Northern Illinois here.

It must have been when we were about 11 years old when we took up this role of assisting the priest at Mass. One of the Dominican nuns would hold group-training sessions with you and the other boys in your class. It was like a rite of passage. The first classes were held at school and later training moved to the church altar. Just like in play rehearsal when you eventually moved to the stage.

In these classes we learned to take direction and take initiative on the altar. We learned the words and pronunciations of the Latin Mass that were critical to our responses, but never really learned their meaning. Some of those words and phrases and chants in Latin services had a lovely melodic sound, almost like poetry, especially in the repetitive prayers. Every now and then some of those phrases come back to my mind.

Showtime, of course, was your very first Mass with an actual priest in charge, and any former altar boy who says he wasn’t nervous on that day needs to go to Confession. And at that first real Mass we learned the next big lesson of our young lives: how to adapt.

Because what Sister taught us and what Father wanted didn’t always mesh. Usually they were minor things, but still one needed to learn to go with the flow and you quickly learned not to say something like, “But Father, that’s not what Sister said.” That also was something we learned about quickly: hierarchy. That knowledge also was useful later in life.

A brand new altar boy was first put on the altar at daily Mass when attendance was usually low. Then you worked up to Sunday Mass with a full church where you learned to perform with hundreds of eyes on you. More good training for later in life, depending on your eventual vocation. There are many adults who never in their lives have had to perform a job with hundreds observing.

We gained confidence as time went on. The High Masses were a little more complicated than the Low Masses. The assistant pastor did things just a bit different than the pastor. We learned how to handle special occasions like Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and annual Mission services with different priests with different ways.

When the Bishop was due to come for the Sacrament of Confirmation a bit of anxiety would set in again and there would be additional training. On the occasions when a service called for multiple priests, we altar boys got to see the clergy in a new light.

Off the altar we observed them chatting and laughing and interacting with each other in a way they did not with others. We saw the Brotherhood of Priests up close. The camaraderie of the spiritual workplace. I suspect more than one altar boy has first thought about becoming a priest after observing priests interacting in this way.

Another facet of the altar boy’s life that introduced him to a wider world was serving at weddings and funerals. We all loved weddings because the groom was expected to give us a little spending money. Have I mentioned that being an altar boy was an unpaid job?

Except for weddings. As we stood on the altar with the priest and looked out at the wedding couple and their families and friends and all the happy, smiling faces, we understood, even as children, that we were observing a key moment in these lives. And we were a part of this event. This sacrament and public performance.

And then there were the funerals. No smiling faces. Obvious sorrow. Some tears, especially if the deceased was rather young. And another unspoken lesson: life is not all sunshine and roses. And when the service was over we would remove our cassocks and surplices and run back across the street to St. Malachy’s Grade School and return to a class in progress. Life goes on. Another lesson learned.

The shelf life of an altar boy at that time was from about fifth grade through eighth grade, after which we went to public high school and most of us then ended our careers on the altar. When I look back on it all, it still amazes me a bit when I consider all the formative experiences. We learned a new job. Portions of a new language. We learned to take direction. To take initiative. To adapt to different human personalities. We learned discipline. To be dependable and arrive on time. To rise early and walk through the dark and cold streets alone, often in snow or rain. We learned to overcome our fears of the unknown. We learned to perform in public. And we soaked up our Catholic faith through the avenue of service.

Today these young men and women with this job are called Mass Servers. They truly are servers. Next time you are at Mass, observe them carefully. There’s more going on there than meets the eye.

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